The Crispa Files
Rafe Bartholomew is the author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. He has previously written for FD about style in Philippine hoops. Monitor his every move at @rafeboogs, and visit his website.
Five years ago, about a month after I first arrived in the Philippines, I bought a photo album. I was shopping at an upscale swap meet in Metro Manila. After eying a case full of antique watches, some bearing the likenesses of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in gold and silver relief, I noticed a crate of Frank Sinatra and Paul Anka vinyl LPs on the ground, and next to it a stack of basketball photos. I found the album underneath the single prints. It was nearly thirty years old, although I had no way of knowing at the time. All I could tell was that it looked ancient—tattered and coverless, with the wax paper between pages humidity-bonded to the photos themselves. Each image was devoted to the game, and even though I couldn't yet recognize the players, I had already heard of the name on their jerseys: Crispa. Almost as soon as I landed in Manila to learn about the Philippines' unparalleled basketball jones, sports writers began telling me about Crispa. This team, along with its 1970s rival Toyota, turned the Philippine Basketball Association into a force in popular culture whose reach and influence rivaled that of politics, the local film and television industries, even the Church.
I bought the album because it looked cool. A hundred or so worn, black and white pieces of basketball history couldn't hurt my research on Philippine hoops. It would take years of interviews and library digging before I understood how important it was. Much has been made of YouTube's role in creating a video archive of basketball history. I can watch Wilt Chamberlain catch lob after lob in a 1957 Kansas victory over my alma mater, Northwestern. What I can hardly watch any of, however, is a Philippine Basketball Association game from the late Seventies, an era considered the golden age of professional basketball by most Pinoys old enough to remember it. The players in these photos are their country's innovators, the Philippine anologues to Oscar Robertson, Clyde Frazier, Bird, Magic and Kareem, the athletes who set the PBA game on its course to the high-skilled, high-scoring, flamboyant modern era.
Now imagine not being able to see Clyde on D, Magic on the break or Bird on a hot streak. With rare exceptions, that's basically the case for Philippine basketball. When the PBA released a five-disc set of classic game DVDs, the oldest game chosen for the series was played in 1990. The Toyota-Crispa DVD showed a reunion game from 2003, when most of the players were in their fifties. If the mother lode of early PBA footage exists somewhere in the Philippines, it seems to be as well hidden as Yamashita's gold, because in three years of research on Pinoy hoops, I never saw a second of tape from the Seventies. The television networks that played the games are either kaput or unrecognizable in their more recent incarnations, and few, if any, records of their PBA broadcasts seem to exist. When I met Crispa greats like Atoy Co and Philip Cezar and they asked me if I had found footage of their old games, I realized how grim the situation was. For Co, the silver lining was that he still possessed betamax tapes of several Crispa games; he just needed a functional betamax player or a machine to convert his tapes to a modern format. Presumably, the PBA has a video archive, although I never gained access to it.
So this album, finally digitized, is not just a cool-looking score from an antique shop. It's one of the best records I've seen of 1970s professional basketball in the Philippines, and although we can't see how Atoy Co set up his split-legged jumpers or assess Freddie Hubalde's bank shot from the wing, we can get a sense of how vibrant the Philippine game was back then, both on and off the court. You can almost smell the funk in wide shots of packed, humid arenas filled with cigarette-smoking patrons; you can sense the speed and intensity of the Philippine game in the players' stretched, splayed, soaring bodies; and you can feel the depth of the nation's passion for the sport in the solemn expressions on the faces of fans, coaches and players alike during the lulls in and around games.
Here are a handful of photos that stand out, with a few thoughts devoted to each. Most of the comments are based on my previous research, although I also consulted Jay P. Mercado, an amateur PBA historian of legendary stature on Philippine basketball message boards. Do yourself a favor and check out the entire album, because I've been digging into the history of Philippine basketball for years, and I've never seen anything quite like this.
Most of these pictures come from the 1977 PBA season, which might explain why so many of them feature Crispa's Freddie Hubalde (#10). Hubalde was the back-up small forward throughout Crispa's first two PBA seasons, playing behind Bogs Adornado, who won the MVP award in '75 and '76. Bogs blew his knee out before the next season, and Hubalde more than ably filled Adornado's shoes by winning his own MVP trophy that year. Adornado was a gifted mid-range shooter who needed little more than shot fakes, jab steps and a sliver of daylight to be an effective scorer. Hubalde was more of a slasher and hustler; if images like this jumping jack knife move are any indication, Hubalde must have spent much of his career airborne with legs akimbo.
Crispa Coach Baby Dalupan and manager Danny Floro sit in the center of the frame, praying for, among other things, victory. The identity of the woman shooting the extremely salty glare into the camera is anybody's guess. It appears obvious, however, that she disapproves of bringing the hoopla of professional basketball into church. Not that there's much she can do about it. The Pinoy basketball universe is as fervently Catholic as the rest of the country. (See Manny Pacquiao's recent stand on birth control.) On my second day of following a PBA franchise through the 2007 season, I bowed my head with the entire team and their families at a special mass to bless the forthcoming campaign. A true believer would say it paid off; the team won the championship.
When imports are allowed to play in the PBA (the season is typically split into separate mini-seasons called conferences, one All-Filipino and one or more where international ringers can be hired), they are the kings of the league. Cyrus Mann, a 6-10 fourth-round draft pick of the Celtics in 1975, wound up anchoring Crispa's defense during several title seasons in the late Seventies. There's something very regal about him – his long, loping gait, his silk shirt, bellbottoms and hat. Crispa Manager Danny Floro leads him across the court, with a child that is almost surely Mann's son in tow. Trailblazing imports like Mann, Byron “Snake” Jones and Andy Fields were the first to taste the PBA's royal treatment.
Here we see “Fastbreak” Freddie Webb, the brightest star of the Tanduay Rhum franchise in the 1970s, who retired from basketball to become a sitcom star, film actor and politician. He was a senator from 1992 till 1998 and has been all over the Philippine press this week, because the country's Supreme Court overturned his son Hubert's extremely specious conviction on rape and murder charges after the younger Webb spent 15 years in prison. Webb is generally credited as one of the more successful and useful athletes-turned-politicians in the Philippines, although rumor has long had it that Webb's political enemies were involved in his son's frame-up.
Felicisima Bais, AKA Mommy Crispa, is probably the best-known fan in PBA history. Truth be told, every team has a Mommy Crispa, a den mother figure to lead the flock of pseudo-professional die-hard fans who receive free tickets and usually a per diem to form a cheering section. Crispa's Astroturf pep squad was known as the Crispanatics, and because Bais led the troupe devoted to the PBA's most-storied franchise, she gets the nod in history books as the league's preeminent superfan. Her accidental death in 1978, after falling down a flight of stairs, only amplified her legend.
Four Crispa players stretch before a game while a ballboy watches. From left to right, Tito “Kojak” Varela, Freddie Hubalde, Rey Pages, Abet Guidaben. In the olden days, this was about the extent of PBA players' physical training. There are probably as many photos of these guys lighting up cigarettes as there are of them limbering up before games. Many players back then believed weight training would ruin their shooting touch; others thought knee braces were for sissies. Practices were simple—sprints and scrimmages. A handful of all-time greats from this era supposedly had a hard time dribbling with their off-hands. Yet even though the skills may have been a bit underdeveloped and the sweat may have reeked somewhat of nicotine back then, few have ever claimed that the game was anything less than electric.